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Lakers Ride Dominant Defense to WCF

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

With decisive 4-1 defeats of both Portland and Houston, the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals riding a defense that’s been locked in, smothering, and smart.

“We’re really diverse,” said Alex Caruso, one of the team’s best defenders both on and off the basketball. “There are different schemes for different opponents. Portland ran a lot of ball screens with their two lead guards that are smaller guards, so they try to clear them up and we did a good job of negating the ball screens. Houston tried to play a lot of isolation and get a bunch of threes, and we tried to take the threes and the isos out of the game.”

Portland came into the postseason ranked third in offense, and averaged 123.4 points per game in the seeding games. Houston came in ranked 6th, and averaged 18 made 3’s per game* in their Round 1 win over OKC. Both presented unique challenges with high-powered backcourts, and MVP-caliber lead guards in Damian Lillard and James Harden, whose collective range extends well beyond the 3-point line.
*For context, the Lakers averaged 12 3’s per game against Portland, and set a franchise record by hitting 19 in Game 5 against Houston.

“I’m just really proud of our whole team, beginning with (LeBron and Anthony Davis), but top to bottom our whole roster’s commitment to the defensive end,” he said after Game 5 against Houston. “We really, really committed."

Lakers vs Rockets

Vogel and his staff tailored specific game plans to combat Portland’s and then Houston’s strengths, and the players – boasting many years of collective playoff experience from guys like LeBron, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green – executed extremely well.

“We just do a really good job of following the game plan,” said Caruso. “That’s probably our strongest asset, that we have five guys no matter who it is out there that can think as well as play at the same time. When you do that, you’re on time for your coverages, you’re on time for your help, you’re taking away the guy’s strong hand. You’re doing the little things that we’ve schemed for and obviously it’s shown up, since we’ve played so well defensively against two great offensive teams in the first two rounds.”

Vogel put it like this, when asked about his players: “They have a great ability to figure things out.”

Houston averaged 117.8 points per game in the regular season. The Lakers held them to 103.8.

The Lakers weren’t at their sharpest in Game 1 after a long layoff from the Portland series, when they closed out the Blazers on a Saturday (Aug. 29) and didn’t play Houston until the next Friday (Sept. 4). That’ll match their rest for this series as well, as LAL finished Houston off on Saturday (Sept. 12) with the Clippers and Nuggets playing a Game 7 Tuesday night ahead of Friday night’s Game 1 (Sept. 18).

“We were a little better the first game against Houston than we were against Portland, and hopefully that will be the same step,” said Caruso. “Just trying to stay in as much of a rhythm and as much of a competitive mindset as we can. That’s really the biggest thing. Not physically being ready – physically, we’re the best athletes in the world, we’ll physically be ready to go – but mentally being able to get to the point to where the sense of urgency is high and you’re playing like it’s do or die, and you didn’t just have five days off.”

“The only difference that we’re really seeing is the Game 7 is a day sooner than it was last time, so we’ll have two full practice days to prepare while knowing who our opponent is,” added Vogel. “Last time we only had one. Even though I do believe there’s a benefit to teams playing in a Game 7 and winning a Game 7 that the team that is resting does not have, there are definitely still benefits over the duration of a series. Getting your legs under you, getting your sleep patterns regulated a little bit more by having a few extra days and having a few extra days to focus on the preparation.”

Lakers vs. Rockets

On Monday, the Lakers had a practice to focus on ... the Lakers.

“All of our fundamentals,” said Vogel. “Running our sets with precision and detail, executing our defensive coverages, all of our drill work. And then when we go to scrimmage, we play what our base defense is, and we run our offense against our base defense rather than create an environment of what our opponent will throw at us.”

The players had Tuesday off, while the coaches continued to work on game plans and scouting reports for both the Nuggets and the Clippers. By the end of Tuesday’s Game 7, the Lakers will be prepared for each potential opponent. Then on Wednesday, they’ll have a live practice with contact to hone in on that game plan, before a light day on Thursday as they ramp up towards Game 1.

“The message with our group is you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,” said Vogel. “That’s gotta be your focus. You’re trying to get enough work to stay in rhythm, keep your conditioning, but still take advantage of rest. We’re gonna have a plan this week of trying to stay in the cadence of playing every other day.”

Whoever the Lakers play on Friday, their defense promises to be up to the task.

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